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Channel Islands: Back to nature

Nature is at its beautiful, tranquil best on the islands of Alderney and Herm

Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:19 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 13:31 BST
Gannet, Alderney

Gannet, Alderney

Photograph by Jake Woodnutt

"Oh no, you don't have to wear your seatbelt," says Helene, my guide, as I instinctively do as I've always done. "It's not law on Alderney — there just aren't enough cars on the island for them to be necessary."

She's right, too: there's not another car anywhere in sight as we edge out of the airport and into the country lanes, trundling along below the legal limit of 35mph. Abruptly we veer off up an unmade track, sided with tall, rustling grass as a ferociously strong gusts pummels the car. I'm a little alarmed as we park up and get out, the saline wind howling away as it digs into my cheeks and makes my eyes stream.

Despite the watery eyes, I can see two hulking rocks rising out of the sea, the wind whipping the teal water into ripples of white foam all around them. But the surfaces of the rocks, brilliantly white in the sunshine, seem to be moving — they're teeming with fluttering birds. "Meet our gannets!" cries Helene over the wind. Les Etacs, as the rocks are known, are the precipitous home to one of Europe's largest gannet colonies (near 6,000 to be precise) and have been nesting on the craggy outcrops for over 70 years — and clearly not put off by the gales.

Like the gannets, I'm no longer put off by the wind as I set out on two wheels to take in this tiny, three-mile-long island in glancing distance of the French coast. Alderney's beautiful, shell-strewn coast is littered with vestiges of fortification – from the imposing silhouette of Fort Clonque and its causeway to fortresses set up on Hitler's command in the Occupation. But it's the pure peace and quiet that I find so captivating on Alderney, as I park my bike on the grass and take in the bright, blue sea beyond the billowing swathes of purple seathrift. And it's not just the gannets that call Alderney home. I keep my eyes peeled for puffins and dolphins on the coast, beautiful little firecrests inland and even manage to spot the elusive blonde hedgehogs sniffling around the golf courses at night.

But I soon find myself back in St Peter Port, on nearby Guernsey, boarding a busy ferry headed for paradise — or, at least, that's what I've been told. As we land on little Herm, I can begin to see why: from the rugged sea steps, I follow a sandy path winding its way inland, heaving with lush greenery from as far as Mexico and Australia. It feels exotic and faraway: like Daphne du Maurier stirred together with Robinson Crusoe, or even almost as faraway and fantastical as Neverland.

"Even our seasons vary to the UK," says island CEO Jonathan, who's showing me around. "We're usually ahead by about a month." It's early May, but I easily believe him as we amble down to Shell Beach — a handful of surfers are kicking back with ice creams on this long, golden stretch of sand, all to the sound of chirping oystercatchers from somewhere along the shore. From there, we wander uphill to the sound of tweeting oystercatchers, increasingly heated from the streaming sunshine.

"And this is Belvoir Bay," says Jonathan proudly as we gaze down the hill. Tucked beneath us is a sweeping, near-deserted arc of sand, lapped by turquoise sea. It could, I say, be straight from the Adriatic. "You're right," says Jonathan with a smile. "It feels like a constant holiday here. We say there's very little to do on Herm, but not enough time to do it."

Follow @connorjmcgovern

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